Finding calm in bookshelf memories | whynow

Katie Dancey-Downs spent her early career working in a bookshop and is now a writer. Books mean everything to her, and picking one up that she’s previously connected with brings all those emotions back again in a real sense of serenity.


Books hold memories. I might hang photos on the wall, and smile as the memories flood back, but instead I put up bookshelves. Feeling the solid weight of a leather-bound classic discovered in a charity shop, inhaling the scent of fresh pages, and grazing my fingertips along the crispy edges of a paperback dropped in the bath is a chance to relive the past – not just the stories, but how the book has been part of my life. It is calming. It is peaceful. This is why I keep my books.

[It is] a chance to relive the past – not just the stories, but how the book has been part of my life.

My bookshelves are full of memories unique to me. Take Firmin by Sam Savage, a story of a bookshop-dwelling rat who eats books, and by some magic learns to read. This was the first book I bought in my new job in a bookshop, soon after I’d finished college. I was drawn in by the artwork, a hot pink book with a chewed corner against an antiqued cover, but I connected with the story. Like Firmin the rat, I was devouring the books around me, and falling further and further in love with reading.

I loved helping someone discover a new book, knowing the journey they were about to take, and if I was lucky hearing their review on a return visit. There was no more delicious challenge than hearing someone say, “I don’t really like reading.” To me, they just hadn’t found the right book yet. When I see the Firmin spine on my bookshelf, a pink rat perched on top of the letters, I feel all this.

There was no more delicious challenge than hearing someone say, “I don’t really like reading.”

Moving along the shelf, my eye always lands on Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I didn’t choose this book for myself, or stumble upon it – in fact, it was required reading. But I’m so glad it was. As I started out my career as a writer (moving on from the bookshop, and with some other adventures in between), I’d been tasked with writing a piece on an event with Liptrot.

The story about Liptrot’s battle with alcoholism is honest and raw, but it was a different theme that I connected with – the healing power of nature. Like Amy, I’ve always been torn between following my ambition towards city life, and staying with my heart in the countryside. Perhaps it was reading about her wild swimming, almost feeling for myself the solitude of snorkelling in rock pools and seeing the underwater world up close, that made me realise how much I need the outdoors, how where I live in Dorset gives me exactly the right prescription of coast and forest. Looking at the watery-blue cover, I’m always reminded of that.

Like Amy, I’ve always been torn between following my ambition towards city life, and staying with my heart in the countryside.

Then there’s The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I’d just moved house, and read on a makeshift bed amongst a pile of cardboard boxes. It just so happened that I read this book only days before travelling to India for my first international work trip – I was going to research a piece about a rural rewilding project. Reading The God of Small Things was like travelling to India, but when I see the cover now I’m reminded of my own journey through farmlands at dusk in the back of a flatbed truck, being told, “That’s the rock where the leopard usually sits.” I wonder how differently I’d experience the book if I read it again now.

In stark contrast to the serene lily pads on the cover of The God of Small Things, is the bold lettering of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I’d been to see a bibliotherapist, who helped me explore my relationship with books and left me with a prescription. I forget why she prescribed Geek Love, but potentially because I love weird stories. You can’t get much weirder than a novel about a couple breeding their own freak show. In my infinite wisdom, I thought this would make a great choice for my work book club.

As I sat down to read the first chapter (crucially, we had to choose a book that we hadn’t yet read), the story started with people biting the heads off chickens. This is not good, when you work for a vegetarian company. As we read on, another gruesome scene resulted in one of my colleagues unlocking a suppressed memory about stumbling upon a severed body part. Mild PTSD wasn’t exactly the result I was going for in my book club choice, but it made for a fiery discussion with our tea and carrot cake. I still recommend Geek Love to people, just with a strong warning.

A little further along the bookshelf, is the teal and orange cover of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which was one of the books tucked inside my suitcase as I travelled to Spain, five months pregnant. This story of the American Dream and a wrongful (and racist) conviction, is told with the most accomplished character voices. As I wallowed in the swimming pool, trying to cool down, and thinking about when it was acceptable to have more paella, I was hooked on Jones’s writing. Holding the paperback in my hands now, I remember two things: the absolute feat of storytelling, and the strange feeling of knowing that everything in life was about to completely change, as my pregnant belly swelled.

As I wallowed in the swimming pool, trying to cool down, and thinking about when it was acceptable to have more paella, I was hooked on Jones’s writing.

There are book memories connected to stories, others that come from time and place, and then there are those that leave you with an altered state of mind. Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari is the latter. I knew barely anything about the war on drugs, and I don’t think I’d ever been particularly interested, until I read this book. It completely changed my mind on subjects like decriminalisation – that’s how strong the storytelling is. Not only did Chasing the Scream give me a totally new worldview, but it also made me realise what kind of writer I wanted to be. I wanted to write words that matter, that I care about, and that have the potential to create change. That’s a powerful thing to be reminded of, just by seeing a book on a shelf.

Right now, we’re being encouraged to do something new, be productive, and make the most of our time. Bake, exercise, learn an instrument. But for some of us, what we need is a moment of calm. On a day where we’d love nothing more than to get lost in a bookshop, perhaps this period of social isolation is a chance to take some time out, revisit our past adventures, and flip through our bookshelf memories.

Rampa  They Will Be